Review: Giaconda Dining Room, Tottenham Court Road

Giaconda Dining Room has always been one of my favourite places to frequent around the West End (well the back end of Tottenham Court Road), completely unpretentious with fantastic interesting food (and wine in particular) at sensible prices. I hadn’t been for a couple of years but my overriding memory is of a small packed buzzy bistro vibe and always welcoming staff.

So whilst racking my brains for somewhere to eat later on a Wednesday night I excitedly recalled GDR and off we went. It had changed somewhat in that the main dining room had been extended, certainly a blessing given it used to be a tight squeeze although late on a mid-week night it unfortunately wasn’t very busy and hence looked even emptier than it would have. The decor has been brightened up a fair bit with jazzy tablecloths, personally I preferred the previous starker interior but fair enough.

Radishes and delicious anchovy paste

 

Raw salmon

 

Cheesy risotto

 

A small cover charge includes bread, radishes, anchovy paste and unlimited filtered sparkling water which I think is a good deal. The anchovy paste was amazing and extremely moreish (recalling my South African roots and the breakfast staple Pecks Anchovette paste). I like the idea of radishes as a snack as well, crisp and refreshing. My starter was raw salmon with fennel and cucumber. The presentation was supremely elegant, looking effortless but clearly a lot of skill in the arrangement. The cucumber was very refreshing with a generous portion of salmon beneath. Unfortunately the dish was overpowered by a sharp, salty lemon dressing. I can appreciate the combination but a bit less would have elevated the dish instead of dominating it, certainly not bad and only a small change would make this a fantastic starter. Phil had the special risotto, described as cheesy. It certainly smelt strong and looked properly creamy and comforting, he enjoyed it although said the portion was perhaps too generous.

Lemon sole

 

Saffron risotto

 

I opted for the lemon sole wrapped in parma ham and served with saffron risotto. The main piece of fish was a great size and came plated just with a wedge of lemon. The combination of soft white fish and crisped salty parma ham worked perfectly, the fish was very marginally over but I’d happily allow that for the crisp parma ham. A side of saffron risotto was a bowl of unctuous bright yellow starchy goodness.

 

Lamb leg steak

 

Coco beans

 

Phil had the special lamb, which was a grilled leg steak with coco beans and potatoes. I was concerned about the choice of cut and hence didn’t go for it myself. It was cooked on the rarer side of medium rare and the meat looked good, however I do think that is a slightly tough cut to serve so thick and rare. The coco beans with potatoes were great as an interesting accompaniment, juicy and packed full of flavour.

Berry tart

Délice JocondeFor dessert I opted for a strawberry and raspberry tart with creme patisserie. A classic combination, it worked very well and came as a whole mini tart. If I was being fussy I wish the pastry was a bit more delicate and there was more sauce, but those are small complaints. Phil opted for Délice Joconde, a chocolate and praline mousse with hazlenut sponge. He said it was fantastic with plenty of chocolate flavour and a light texture.

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So overall a cracking meal, and with their expanded dining room you haven’t got any reason not to get down there asap. I realise I’ve sounded a bit fussy about some of the dishes but everything was enjoyed thoroughly and could be elevated to ultimate excellence with some tiny tweaks. The food is comforting and elegant at the same time, a difficult combination to pull off, and the prices are very reasonable for the quality and location. And a note on the wine list, we had this very delicious Puligny Montrachet for a bargain £45, given I’ve seen it over £30 retail. A fixed markup makes it the best value list I’ve seen in London and worth splashing a bit more on.

Review: Cottons, Camden

Cocktails and food menus

Camden Lock. Busy, noisy, full of goths and even punks still (I didn’t realise they still existed). Food-wise it’s pretty easy to find places to avoid, mainly by the smell of greasy noodles and stale meat under heat lamps. So where to go when you actually do want something to eat. Porky’s serves fantastic American true BBQ and you could follow up with nitrogen-frozen ice cream at Chin-Chin labs. Yum-cha serves excellent cheap dim-sum from the most unassuming of restaurants. So can I add Cottons to that list for Caribbean food and rhum?

The dark and stormy

Bad beer made better by holiday memories

Situated halfway towards Chalk Farm and with a fairly non-descript exterior I must have walked past a hundred times or so. But this time I decided to venture in and give it a go. First impressions weren’t brilliant, admittedly it was quite late on Sunday afternoon but it looked quite deserted. Walking through the bar we saw a few people dining and carried on through. It is separated into smaller rooms which are a bit dark and claustrophobic, I suppose at night they could appear cosier. Menus were brought quickly and we were offered drinks from the long list of rum cocktails and short list of beers. I opted for a classic Dark and Stormy and the wife went for a bottle of Carib (ostensibly to recall our honeymoon in Grenada). It was a decent enough cocktail, slightly sharp perhaps but plenty of lime and booze. We were brought some thick slices of white brioche and butter which went down well, despite not being the most refined bread option.

Spring onion skewers

 

Jerk ribs

We opted to share a couple of meat starters and then split the mixed jerk fish grill since we weren’t overly hungry. Our first starter was spring onion skewers which was presented very well. The thigh meat was cooked beautifully, making them tender and juicy. Served with a quite spicy sauce and lots of onion to punch it up, it was full of flavour and an excellent start. The ribs were good if not quite as punchy. The ribs had plenty of meat and were drizzled with a quite piquant sharp sauce, I just wish the meat was a bit more tender (maybe a slightly slower cook was needed). Served with crispy onions this was still a great starter though and I loved the unusual sauce, perhaps it was tamarind based?

Mixed fish jerk grill

The mixed jerk fish grill came next, with plantain and rice ‘n peas. A decent portion arrived (especially for one!) with 3 types of fish and a solitary prawn. The same sauce as the ribs starter was in a pot (fair enough since they’re both jerk options) and helped moisten the rice and the whole dish. The rice ‘n peas were fine, with proper “peas” although maybe a few more would have been nice. The plantain was excellent and unusually served in the skin. Firm and sweet it cut through the jerk sauce deliciously. The fish was OK given the context, but 2 of the pieces in particular were overcooked and needed lots of sauce. The single prawn was cooked to death and quite unappealing. Trying to serve 3 pieces of fish and prawns with sides is tricky for £15, but I’d rather either have a more expensive or smaller portion with fresher fish. One of the fish was still juicy although quite a few bones were present in all of them.

So, a mixed bag overall. Excellent starters but a disappointing main which while OK lacked quality produce and needed some more refined cooking. The prices aren’t hugely cheap, but aren’t expensive either so I feel I will give it another go at some point in the future. Perhaps their meat platter shows the better side of their cooking. The rum list is very impressive (see the photo below) so I’ll definitely be back to run through that in more detail.

The impressive wine list! £3,500 a shot anyone!?

Final bill, pretty reasonable

“Tandoori” style yogurt salmon with broccoli and saffron rice

Jaunty shot of the finished article

This recipe is inspired by tandoori-style cooking, in that the cooking method is grilling (for a quick high heat) and the marinade is yogurt based with Indian spicing. It can’t substitute a skewer cooked in a proper Tandoor (an extremely hot wood-fuelled clay oven) but for a Monday night dinner does a pretty damn good approaching it. It is fresher than most curries, without a heavier tomato based sauce or too much oil, the yogurt keeps it light and adds tang. The saffron rice is a perfect accompaniment and is all you need for a healthy complete meal.

Recipe (for 2)

  • 2 small skinless salmon fillets
  • 1 head of broccoli
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • 200g Basmati rice
  • 200ml plain yogurt
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely grated or minced (or very finely sliced and “squashed” with a knife)
  • 1 small piece of ginger finely grated
  • 1 fine chopped red chilli
  • 3 tsps of garam masala
  • Salt
  • 1/2 tsps of chilli powder (if you like it hot)
  • 1 tbsps of oil (olive or vegetable)
  • 1 handful of coriander (optional)
  • 1 tbsp of butter (optional)
  • 1 pinch of saffron (optional)
  • 6 cardamon pods (black or green, optional)
  • Wedges of lemon (optional)

Firstly par-boil the broccoli for 3 minutes in boiling water, drain and place in cold water to stop the cooking. Mix the yogurt, garlic, ginger, garam masala, oil and chilli powder together. Mix in the salmon and onion / pepper plus the cooked cooled broccoli. Season with salt and leave to marinate for an hour or so in the fridge (if you have time). Rinse the rice to get rid of excess starch.

Ready to grill

To cook, boil some water for the rice and pre-heat your grill. Spread the yogurt marinaded salmon and veg across a foil lined baking tray and cook for 10 minutes, turning everything once. Cook the rice at the same time with the pinch of saffron and cardamon according to the instructions. Drain the rice and mix in the butter and coriander and a pinch of salt. Plate the rice and serve the salmon and veg on top, with a wedge of lemon on the side for everyone to squeeze on the fish to their taste.

Served!

Recipe: Rare venison haunch, sweet potato fondant and braised red cabbage and apples

The finished article, with plenty of gravy on the sideAs autumn starts to take over from summer and the temperature drops, thoughts turn to hearty comforting richer dishes. Game in particular fits this bill very well, matching Autumn with iron-rich flavoursome meat. And I LOVE venison in particular, served rare it is a luxurious red meat with plenty of flavour and can be just as tender as the finest beef fillet. It pairs very well with sweet, tart sides to cut through the strong flavour and provide a counterpoint. The braised cabbage side works really well, adding earthy red cabbage with sharp red wine vinegar and some tart sweetness from apples. You could certainly use normal potatoes (fondant / mash, or for more decadence some dauphinoise). However I think sweet potato pairs excellently as well.

Venison, unless you’re talking about a slow braising cut, HAS to be rare. The meat dries out much more quickly than beef due to its lean nature (well, deer do tend to run around a lot). I’ll admit I managed to slightly overcook this joint which was very frustrating although being haunch it was still good, trust your instincts. If it’s thin enough you can certainly pan fry it like a steak, however I had a whole 2.5kg haunch and hence opted for roasting. I know people can be squeamish about anything gamey, both the flavour and concept. Disney has a lot to answer for, and despite Thumper and indeed Bambi being very cute, their taste far surpasses their looks. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue against eating a wild animal that has had a free life and was quickly dispatched with a rifle, compared with a battery chicken or even well-raised farm animals. Taste-wise, some game can certainly be challenging to more squeamish eaters. Venison is the perfect gateway game though, it has a stronger flavour than beef but certainly isn’t offensive or unusual.

Roasted Haunch of Venison, Juniper and Schezuan Pepper Crust (feeds 8-10)

  • 1 haunch of venison
  • 2 teaspoons of juniper berries (fresh or dried)
  • 2 teaspoons of schezuan pepper
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of oil
  • Butcher’s string
  • 500ml of beef stock
  • 1 sweet potato per person
  • 500ml of chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 red cabbage
  • 2 onions
  • 2 apples
  • 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of butter

Tied up with fancy silicone ties

So, ideally you can get a whole haunch of venison from your butcher. It will vary in weight depending on the type, mine was around 2.5kg deboned. It can be a bit better to cook on the bone (for flavour and helping cook evenly) but is harder to carve so they both have their benefits. Pre-heat your oven to 220°C. Crush the juniper and pepper with a generous couple of large pinches of salt and pepper. Rub the meat with the oil and then rub the salt mix on top around the whole joint. If it is deboned wrap tightly with string, or if you’re lucky enough some fabulous bright pink silicone ties like the ones I was kindly bought by the wife. Once the oven is hot, place the venison in a sturdy roasting tin. Cook for 20 minutes at 220°C for the sear (or up to 30 for a really big haunch, over 3kg say), then turn the oven down to 160°C and cook for 9-10 minutes per 500g.

For the cabbage side, first peel any damaged outer leaves off and then chop in half. Take any of the thick bitter stem off and slice the remaining cabbage quite finely. Chop the red onion and fry in a tablespoon of butter until slightly softened. Add the cabbage and diced apple and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the vinegar and sugar, tasting as you go to get the right balance (it should be both sharp and sweet). Add a few splashes of water, place the lid on and simmer gently for an hour or so. Check every 20 minutes or so and add more water if it has dried out, it should have a small amount of liquid in the bottom.

For the potatoes, peel them first and then shape into approximately 2 inch rounds but cutting slices from the thickest point, you can neaten the edges with the peeler. I tend to get 2 out of a medium potato, or 3-4 out of a large one. Fry them in lots of butter over a medium heat for 10 minutes total, turning occasionally to prevent burning. Then pour in the chicken or vegetable stock to about half way and cook for 15 minutes or so total, turning halfway to evenly cook. Check they are fully tender through (I made the classic Masterchef mistake of a few hard fondants).

Make sure you give the meat plenty of resting time, 20-30 minutes is ideal so factor it into your timings. While it’s resting get the pan with any juices and add some rich beef stock and a splash of red wine. Adjust for seasoning (if needed) and reduce down on the hob to the thickness of gravy you want. When everything else is ready and plated, carve thin slices and serve.

 

Baba Ghanoush

5-photo_4Burn baby burn

Aubergines, they’re bloody hard to master cooking. At once both hard and slimy, I will happily admit I generally struggle cooking the purple tumescent fruit into anything delicious. Except, that is, baba ghanoush which has to be the best way to deal with this troublesome ingredient. And you get to burn the bastard thing to death first for any previous woes. You may think I have aubergine anger issues but ultimately this is for the good of your baba ghanoush as well. You see the blackened crispy skin, that’s what gives you the smokey note essential to this dish.

The finished, decorated baba ghanoush

Think of it as a hummus with aubergine instead of chickpeas. Juicy, tangy, smokey. Somewhere between a dip and a side dish, it adds bags of flavour and moisture to all sorts of dishes, particularly big cuts of lamb.

Recipe – feeds 6 as a side

  • 2 medium aubergines
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • Sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons of tahini
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1/2 pomegranate (optional)
  • A handful of coriander / parsley (optional)
  • 1 lemon

Grilled to blackened perfection

Firstly grill your aubergines. If you happen to have a hot BBQ / wood-fire going then great, use that. Otherwise grill directly on your hob until properly blackened and softened, around 10 minutes turning periodically. You’ll think it’s burnt, it’s not and actually is easier to peel and much tastier with that smokey flavour. Make sure you have a window open and the extractor on! Leave to cool in a bowl. In the meantime finely chop the garlic clove and then crush with 1 tsp of sea salt to a paste, using the flat of the blade scraped along the board to squash it all together. Add to a bowl along with the juice of the lemon.

Crushing the salt

Once the aubergines have cooled, gently peel the blackened skin (or as much as you can) off and add the peeled aubergine to your bowl with the garlic and lemon, adding as much of the juices as you can. Roughly chop with a knife / fork in the bowl to a rough texture. Then add the olive oil and tahini and stir. Adjust for seasoning, both in terms of lemon and salt plus some pepper. To serve, mix through some pomegranate seeds and the herbs.

Topped with pomegranate and herbs

British Bacon and Pea Fettuccine Carbonara

Fried egg on egg yolk sauce

Carbonara, a classic light Italian pasta sauce, super quick and comforting after a tough day. Very popular yet often poorly done with mounds of cream to make a claggy, heavy, cloying sauce that sticks to the roof of your mouth and the inside of your arteries. However the real version is simpler and lighter.

Recipe – Serves 2

  • 200g of pasta (spaghetti / fettuccine)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • A handful of chives
  • 2 handfuls of (frozen) peas
  • 50g of parmesan or pecorino
  • 4 slices of quality bacon / pancetta cubes / lardons per person

 

Put your pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water and cook until to your preferred level of al-dente. In the meanwhile fry your variety of pig product in a pan with a dash of oil until crisp. Set aside your pork and fry 1 whole egg per person as a topping (optional). Mix the egg yolk, cheese and herbs in a bowl. 30s before draining the pasta add in the frozen peas to defrost. Drain and mix the hot pasta with the cheese / yolk mix and stir for one minute to cook evenly. Add in your bacon and top with the fried egg. Serve immediately.

Review: Patty & Bun Burgers

Logo, reverso

All the essential steps

Burgers, burgers, burgers. I’ve got nothing against a good burger and it’s great that London has some cracking joints to get them from. There’s been lots of excitement about the previously humble meat sandwich in the last couple of years elevating forming a piece of mince into an art-form. I wonder if perhaps it has gone a bit too far though, they are first and foremost supposed to be a quick feel-good hunk of greasy meat in a bun. And I’ve had my fair share of great burgers, everything from my local Dirty Burger for a quick cheap fix to Bar Boulud for an indulgent luxurious twist.

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So forgive me if I’m a bit over the craze. That might explain why it’s taken me so long to actually visit P&B, the revered little eaterie just north of Bond Street. As heroic as the cooking might be (from Burgerman himself), I couldn’t bring myself to queue for a burger any more (not after the heady days of Meat Liquor anyway). But I found myself needing an early dinner at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, surely a lull if ever there was one, and went for it. Still a bloody queue of course, probably 30 minutes or so. S’awright, we popped to the local offy (since they couldn’t serve us anything from P&B outside) and sat drinking cans of lager whilst trying to stare people inside into eating up and leaving.

Cracking beer

Then, all of a sudden, we were in! We ordered two burgers and an order of chips between two of us. The beer selection detailed on the website was poor (I was very concerned at being forced to consume Red Stripe) but they also had a list of specials. Which included my new favourite Five Points Pale , outstanding, along with a very good selection of British and American craft beers. The order arrived quickly, to the house recommended medium-rare.

Beautifully wrapped

Shiny happy bunsSkin on chips

 

And, in case you had any doubts, holy shit these are good burgers. Super beefy, rich, fatty but not too greasy and very juicy. The bun is amazing, a sweet firm brioche to hold up to the juice. And the topping are all good twists on the classic. I had the Smokey Robinson with bacon, cheese, tomato, lettuce, caramelised onions, ketchup and smokey mayo. First off I very rarely have bacon on a burger since I don’t want any detractions, but this added good seasoning and texture with a single thick slice of quality pig. It sounded like too many condiments but was very balanced and the sweetness of the onions cut through the richness. The other was the “Jose Jose”, swapping chorizo for the bacon and pickled onions for the caramelised onions. Similarly superlative, with big chunks of chorizo and the same balance.

Big bites required.

The money shot

The money shot, in all its goodness. I’ll admit it was a touch overdone for my tastes, and will ask for rarer next time, but it’s certainly acceptable. The chips are skin-on, certainly my preference since it adds texture and flavour. Super salty with a hit of rosemary, they packed flavour and crunch into every bite, I wish we’d got another side of them in fact which is unusual. So, in and out for £30 with 2 beers, this is possibly my top burger in London and certainly the best in the sub £12 mark. I can recommend it highly, just make sure you have time to queue!

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